Former Ont. premier Bob Rae defends 'Rae Days'

​Former Premier Bob Rae says he has no regrets when it comes to Rae Days, a plan that introduced 12 mandatory unpaid days off for all public sector workers.

Sask. government considering similar plan to tame growing deficit

Former Premier of Ontario Bob Rae says creating 'Rae Days' was a difficult decision, but a necessary one. (Sean Kilpatrick/ Canadian Press)

​Former Premier Bob Rae says he has no regrets when it comes to Rae Days.

In 1993, to combat the Ontario government's massive debt, Rae brought in 12 days of mandatory unpaid leave for all government workers.

As the Saskatchewan government considers a similar plan to battle the growing deficit, Rae spoke to CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning to talk about hard choices and the political blowback that can result.

What worked with Rae Days, and what were the challenges and the pitfalls?

We were looking at a comprehensive social contract that would save jobs, and at the same time, get us through a difficult time.

The choice we faced was, basically, we either do something like this and protect lower-paid workers, or make sure everybody's covered, including deputy ministers, premiers and MPs and everybody else.

I felt at the time that firing a bunch of nurses and teachers, young people, would have been a big injustice, and the fairer thing to do in the circumstances is to share the pain, which is what we did.

Is there anything you wish you would have done differently? Would it have been coming to the table earlier with unions?

The entire spring of 1993 was taken up with this effort of negotiating something.

I think the problem was there was a sense that the government can never really run short, and if they do run short, it's their fault, and there's no way that they should take it out on one set of workers.

The reality is that in Ontario, as many as 20 per cent of the workforce works for the government. And about 70 to 75 per cent of the cost of government is wages.

So, if you don't deal with those costs somehow, you're not going to get to a better place.

There's been other options the government here has talked about, like wage rollbacks and cuts. Is this a better option?

You do have some flexibility in government. You can do things over a longer period of time. So, you could say we're going to have a restrained policy for a period of time that's going to carry us through.

You need to have a sense of confidence that the economy is going to come back, and the revenues are going to come back.

But the hard fact is that for people in the private sector, who are facing a recession when oil prices drop in Saskatchewan and Alberta, it has a significant impact on businesses across the board, as well as on the revenues that government has to pay everybody else.

So, it's not as if you can keep the public sector, broadly speaking, immune from these pressures in the economy. 

There was a resource boom here in Saskatchewan for some time, and coming back to what the unions are saying, is it fair that government puts that burden on workers, and that the government mismanaged revenue coming in? Is that not a fair stance from unions?

It's not a surprising one. If you're facing a financial challenge in the private sector, somebody puts a lock on the door. There's a thing called bankruptcy, and very tough times and layoffs, and that's what happens in the market economy.

In the public sector economy, it's very hard to persuade people that the financial crisis is real, that it's objectively true, and that there are a set of choices, none of which are particularly pleasant.

And it's not for me to get in the middle of a partisan issue in Saskatchewan. I'm sure there's ways for governments of all stripes that could spend their money more wisely.

But the hard truth is, when an economy goes south, it has an impact on the public sector. And you either raise taxes or you borrow more money or you try to save on the spending side.

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning